The Tranquility of Trust
We left Yosef at the end of last week’s parsha in prison – a “pit” he was naturally eager to leave. After correctly interpreting the dreams of his prison-mates, Yosef asked one of them, apparently quite reasonably, to mention Yosef and his unjust imprisonment to Pharaoh after being released.
The butler, however, did not come through.
And the drinks officer did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him. (Bereishit 40:23)
And it was at the end of two years, Pharaoh dreamt a dream… (Ibid. 41:1)
That seems like a lot of words to tell us there was a span of time between the butler’s release and the royal dream that brought him to mention Yosef.
The Significance of Yosef’s Wait
According to the Maharal, in his Gur Aryeh commentary, this wordiness is behind Rashi’s comment (citing midrash) that holds Yosef to account for placing his faith in the butler.
Because Yosef relied on him to remember him, he [Yosef] needed to be imprisoned two [more] years… [The midrash continues with a source verse too involved to discuss in this space, about misplaced trust vs. relying on God.)
The Gur Aryeh explains:
For otherwise, what difference does it make to write “and the drinks officer did not remember Yosef and he forgot him”? If it comes to say he didn’t do this kindness for him, that is already written – “and it was at the end of two years”…
Rather, to say that it was brought about by Hashem that he would not mention [Yosef] now – because he hung his faith on the drinks officer.
And… some explain that it is written “and mention me” “and bring me out” (40:14); for these two words, it was decreed upon him to be imprisoned two years.
However, even if we can understand the textual roots at the heart of the midrash, teasing out the message is more complicated.
Effort vs. Faith?
Apparently, the idea is that Yosef’s efforts to procure freedom via the butler displayed a lack of faith in God’s help – a lack so problematic as to deserve punishment.
However, as the Beit HaLevi commentary (Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, 1820-1892, first Rav of Brisk) writes, the Torah permits human effort towards physical needs. For instance, Devarim 11:14 states, “you will gather your grain and your wine,” and the Gemara infers a mandate to “behave regarding them like the way of the world” (Berachot 35).
What, then, was the problem with Yosef’s request?
To jump to the end, the Beit HaLevi suggests that different people are capable of different levels of trust in God, and Yosef was so capable that for him, even this little bit of effort was problematic. Yosef chose to rely on human effort more than necessary for him, so God responded by leaving him in the hands of the efforts he chose.
Effort as a Means to Faith
While there is plenty to discuss about this notion of different levels of faith and the idea that a person might not live up to his or her own trust in God, what I find most fascinating in this passage is the middle, where the Beit HaLevi offers a unique perspective on the relationship between faith and effort.
One’s heart should be calm and trust in God… Because not every person can achieve the level of complete trust, effort is permitted for him so he will have support to achieve the level of trust. Every person must engage in work/business so it will become easy for him to trust in God.
Like they said, “A person should always involve himself in Torah and Mitzvot even not for its own sake, for out of not for its sake will come for its sake” – not for its sake is permitted so that it will be a support to come to for its sake.
Humans are physical beings, and if we don’t see where our next meal is coming from, we get nervous. It is hard to truly, calmly rely on an unseen force, no matter how deeply we believe. (Even in the desert, surrounded by miracles, relying on the daily manna-fall – with nothing in storage – was a trial.) So we use our physical selves to put in physical efforts that bring a physical sense of security. Within that serenity, we can learn to trust God.
The question is not how much effort we extend vs. how much we rely on God, but how we allow our efforts to create space in which we can grow our reliance on God.